Quintus Horatius Flaccus better known as Horace (65-8 BC), a distinguished practising Roman poet and literary critic has an influential imprint on the classical literary criticism after Greek masters Plato and Aristotle. With Horace, the scene of classical criticism turned from 4th century BC to 1st century BC, from Greek to Roman masters. It was the glorious and golden age of Augustan, named after the first Roman emperor Octovian Augustus, the great patron and sympathiser of arts and literature. Horace was a close friend to the greatest contemporary Roman poet Virgil and is remembered for his contribution to creative literature i.e. poetry and criticism. The views of Plato and Aristotle are centred on philosophy, as basically they were philosophers but Horace was a practising poet who composed odes and satires including Satires Book I (35 BC), Satires Book II (30 BC), Epodes (29 BC), Odes Book I-III (23 BC), Epistles Book I (20 BC), etc. His fame as a literary critic rests upon his seminal treatise Ars Poetica or Art of Poetry (19 BC), later this title is given by Quintilian, originally it was Epistle to Pisos—a letter composition in verse form. His views on literature are scattered through his other works but Ars Poetica includes major observations on literature and criticism. His contribution to classical criticism and poetry is very significant, many later Roman and English poets like Milton, Pope, Marvell, Sidney, etc. imitated and practised the form and poetical style propounded by him. He is more authoritative in his theory of classicism and views on poetry, drama, style and overall literature because unlike Plato and Aristotle, he practised poetry. He believed in the imitation and practice of the ancient Greek literature and philosophy and attempted to find the ancient Greek models. He involved in creative composition which, obviously shaped his critical views. He talks about various elements of poetry like function, nature, language, subject, kinds, etc. Let’s list some of his major observations on poetry:
1. Nature of Poetry: Horace did not directly call the process of composition of poetry as imitation, as said by Plato and Aristotle, but indirectly called the poet an imitator. “I would advise the well-instructed imitator to take his model from life and customs…he (poet) uses fiction and mingled facts with fancy….fiction composed to please should be very near the truth.”
Here he agrees with Aristotle by stating that a poet should imitate the actions of living human beings or their life and what is good or glorious in their life. Further, he extends, poetry is based on fiction or amalgamation of facts and fancy, but made a provision that poetry should express the truth. Here we find the similarity between the views of Aristotle and Horace regarding the nature of poetry—though it is a fictional composition, it should include the truth, truth of life and beauty. It should please the reader or audience. He goes further by calling poetry a creative endeavour and embodiment of beauty of human life and customs. He is more practical and detached himself from philosophical burden.
2. Function of Poetry: Horace, basically was a poet who knew the practical purpose of literature. He preferred neither Plato nor Aristotle as a whole regarding the function of poetry but blended the views of both saying,
“Poets desire either to improve or to please, or to unite the agreeable and the profitable….you will win every vote if you blend what is improving with what pleases, and at once delight and instruct the reader. A poem like this earns money for the publisher; it is sent across the sea and makes its famous author immortal.”
He emphasised two major elements regarding the function of poetry:
1. A poet has two basic desires in composition of poetry i.e. to improve or reform and to please or entertain.
2. A poet can achieve immortality or fulfil his purpose of writing if he synthesises these both elements of improving and pleasing.
The meaning of the above dictum is simple—the function of poetry is to please or entertain and improve or teach (morality), the first is primary and later secondary. He considers poet as a moral improver of the society and did not reject emotional appeal of poetry but reinstate that it should be used for the up-gradation of morality of the society. According to him, why poets are respected in the society, because they show the path of morality and teach what is good for the society.
3. Subject Matter of Poetry: as he already said, poet is an imitator of life and customs, the subject matter or theme of poetry should be derived from human life and customs—the actions of human beings. Further he records, the subject of the poem should be simple and uniform. Simple means familiar to readers or audience. The poet should impart uniformity or wholeness to the subject chosen for composition. The poet must choose the theme as per his capacity so that he could weigh the weight on his shoulders. One must avoid irrelevant and purposeless subject for the composition of poetry. The selection of better theme leads the poet and poetry towards perfection getting success and creates an image in the society.
4. Kinds/ Types of Poetry: Aristotle made difference in poetry according to its medium of imitation, object of imitation and manner of imitation, Horace distinguishes poetry based on its metre and agreed with old Greek practice that there is connection between metre and subject matter of poetry. He talks about the following specific metres for specific composition:
1. For epic- Homer used dactylic hexameter. A dactyl means one long syllable followed by two short syllables indicated as -ᴗᴗ, hexa means six times in the line. In couplet, the first line is composed in dactylic hexameter and second in dactylic pentameter (having five feet).
2. For tragedy, comedy & satirical verse- iambic metre. It consists of two syllables, first short and second long syllable ᴗ-.
For other forms like lyric or song, he advocated other metrical measures as per the need of poets. He followed the Greek model and suggested the same in composition of poetry and other forms by showing his respect for old Greek poetry.
5. Language of Poetry: his views on the language of poetry are largely based on the views of Aristotle on style. The language of poetry need to be selective and in accordance with the reader or audience. Here Horace’s views are more liberal. A poet can choose simple and new diction as well but the primary pre-requisite for that is it must be clear, effective and expressive. The arrangement of diction or words play very significant role in imparting effectiveness to the composition. Let’s quote his own words:
“Your diction will be excellent if a clever combination renders a familiar word original…and words new and lately coined will win credit if they descend from a Greek source, slightly modified.”
He permitted different kinds of words and mundane vocabulary and their apt combination. The poet also can contribute to the existing diction by coining or blending new words. It is the skill of the poet how he arranges and rearranges the words and make them familiar with readers. The skill of a poet lies in the selection and arrangement of words in composition leading him to the success.
6. The Role of Nature and Art in Poetry: nature means natural gift or genius and art means skill or training. It is a controversial question in literature that which is greater or has higher stake in the success of poetry or literature—genius or art. According to Democritus, a contemporary critic, genius is more significant and inevitable in the success of a poem or poet. But Aristotle believed in efforts or training, and on the same line, Horace gave more preference to art i.e. training and toil. Moreover, he did not consider genius and training separate but in combination. Both genius and art has equal stake in the success of a poem, the first is gifted and later can be acquired through skill and training. Refined skill and training can impart the great success to a poet.
Above are the major observations of Horace on poetry.
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Author: Datta G Sawant